Q&A with NZ Organic Wineries

Organic Wine Week 2020 has come to an end and what a celebration it was!

This year we teamed up with four of our major Organic Producers – Millton from Gisborne, Dog Point and Te Whare Ra of Marlborough, and Rippon in Central Otago. We reviewed an organic wine with each Winemaker and chatted to them about their history and the organic wine industry in NZ. Read about what they had to say below.


MILLTON VINEYARD & WINERY


During the seasons with a lot of disease pressure what organic methods do you use to combat these?

In a robust and healthy living plant system disease pressure is considerably reduced due to the activity we perform of increasing the diversity of species in a vineyard. We apply substances which help and enhance the conditions of the growing season in such a way that we Farm Ease and don’t fight DIS-Ease.

We don’t use herbicide instead using mechanical undervine weed control which in turn brings air into the soil which enlivens soil organisms. We apply sulphur, clay and seaweed to combat any fungal activity and also use special preparations from animal, mineral and plant products which pertain to the biodynamic activity. So we have a closed system so our farm maintains its own individuality.

How has the 2019/2020 growing season compared with other seasons?

2019 – 2020 was most probably one of the best seasons we have enjoyed since as far back as 1998 and beyond. Excellent phenolic ripeness and flavours we found in the grapes we harvested.

Has COVID had an impact on this?

The greatest impact of Covid has been mostly in the social aspect of harvest ensuring our fellow workers were in good health and happiness. We have been very successful with this.

Any interesting trends you’ve observed in the organic industry recently?

With the topic of climate change and global warming these is a profound interest in the production of true and meaningful wines coming from vineyards which embrace natural inputs resulting in wines which exhibit a high degree of “somewhereness” and terroir.


DOG POINT VINEYARD


Why did you convert to organics?

The conversion to organic viticulture initially came from a desire to farm in a more natural way and a strong dislike for the conventional way, with its excessive use of synthetic foliar sprays and herbicides. Other important drivers were a perceived improvement to soil and plant health along with creating a healthier working environment for our family and staff. With the marketing of our wine over the latter years it has become very noticeable that consumers are questioning the origins and composition of the products, along with the type of farming regime practiced. Ultimately, we want to leave the land and its environs in a vastly improved state and strongly believe we have a social and environmental responsibility to achieve this.

Have you seen an improvement in your wines under organics.

This is very difficult to ascertain because of so many variables, mainly around seasonal conditions. We are a cool climate region where vintage conditions do vary each year.

However, when considering 3 and 4 above and in particular the overall social and economic responsibility aligned with our own feel good factor associated with organic growing, the answer is yes, the wines are better.

What are your main disease pressures under an organic regime?

The same diseases are common across all types of growing regimes. Typically, Botrytis is of main concern to chemically assisted (conventional) growers, whereas under an organic regime powdery mildew is the main concern. We have noticed that the further we move into organic management the less affect botrytis has due to the immune response of the vine and open well balanced (leaf to fruit ratio) canopies. However, with powdery mildew which grows on the surface of the fruit rather than invading – it is very hard for the plant to fight off infection by itself.

Our main tool in combatting PM is cultural controls backed up by sprays. What has worked for us in our susceptible blocks and varieties has been an early hand leaf pluck and lateral removal, well before flowering. This allows air movement and effective spray penetration to the critical areas. Typically, our sprays are based around the use of sulphur with small amounts of copper and potassium, organic broad-spectrum fungicides.

How did you handle the Covid-19 harvest?

Thankfully, the wine industry was deemed as an essential service so we all could continue, and we are proud to say that we were able to continue with our ethos and commitment to quality by continuing to hand pick all varieties.We also felt we had a strong moral responsibility to our contractor and his RSE workers who have done a fantastic job for us each year.

The Pinot Noir harvest requires all hands-on deck due to the attention to detail approach we use out in the field and in the winery (selective picking and sorting table). We were extremely lucky that this was all but completed prior to the lockdown.

Once lockdown was enforced, we went to a skeleton crew that all lived on site and adhered to strict protocols when working around the hand picking teams, a large group who did an amazing job with their isolation procedures.

From then on there was no reason to panic, the weather paid its part, everything ran smoothly and so we were able to harvest superb quality fruit, the 2020 vintage being right up there with the best.

Where do you see the industry and the market acceptance of organics?

  • Many of the top producers around the world are organic
  • Provenance and story becoming more important
  • Access to information and knowledge greater, so transparency key to consumer
  • No longer fringe, moved past the sandal wearing rose tinted glass hippy image
  • Climate and environmental factors important, thus organic producers able to hold their heads high and be proud of their position


RIPPON VINEYARD & WINERY


During the seasons with a lot of disease pressure what organic methods do you use to combat these?

Compost: start with a robust and diverse base of life in the land (grown from all organic matter off the land itself) and this translates all the way through to the vineyard canopy, the fruit and the wines.

Enthusiasm: maintain a healthy culture, under foot (see compost!) through to humans, which remains engaged and positive about their work

Cultivate: maintain good biodiversity between and around the vines. Keep the herbal underlay beneath the vines healthy and free of congestion. Keep vine vigour low and balanced (see compost!).

Phytosanitary applications: be accurate and efficient in the use of elemental sulphur, seaweed and biodynamic preparations.

How has the 2019/2020 growing season compared with other seasons? Has COVID had an impact on this?

Well, let’s just say 2020 is unlikely to be remembered for the weather! We were extremely grateful to have had the confidence of the NZ Government and our local community, so we could operate as an essential service and bring in our fruit. With the first of the 2020 whites entering bottle (and glass) though, we’re really happy with what this crazy year has offered us.

Any interesting trends you’ve observed in organic industry recently?

It’s great to see more of the big players getting into it. I’m not sure about the idea of an “organic industry” though. For us it’s simply winegrowing, the way we’ve learned; as an enduring and respectful relationship with a piece of land.


TE WHARE RA VINEYARD & WINERY


During the seasons with a lot of disease pressure what organic methods do you use to combat these?

With organic farming it is all about being preventative and taking precautions as we don’t have any quick fix options so it means a lot of careful canopy management through-out the growing season – shoot thinning, bunch thinning and we also remove all the laterals in the fruit zone. So then we have good airflow around the bunches but also dappled light exposure as the UV in Marlborough can be pretty full on. Also for the organic canopy sprays they have to contact to work, as we don’t use systemic fungicides, so all this canopy work is really important for that reason as well.

How has the 2019 /2020 growing season compared with other seasons? Has COVID had an impact on this?

Over the spring of 2019 we experienced great conditions over flowering which led to moderate crops and a nice, even set which was great after the bad flowering we had in 2019. The summer that followed was warm, dry and nice and even with no big heat spikes – similar to the 2016 growing season. We have described it as “the Goldilocks vintage” = not too hot, not too cold, just right!

We did not get the issues with extreme drought like we had in 2019 and so the more gentle summer conditions meant that we had the first fruit into the winery mid - March and harvest completed by the first week in April. The resultant wines have great depth of flavour and fleshiness with purity of fruit, bright aromatics and ripe, juicy acidity.

We were really lucky with the COVID restrictions that we have a very small team and that out two interns made it in before lockdown. Everyone went above and beyond to meet all the requirements that we had to follow, and it all went very smoothly. We also had great support from our hand-pickers and they worked to meet all the protocols as well.

Any interesting trends you’ve observed in organic industry recently?

Really great to see the growth in demand for organic products – we just listened in last week to the OANZ report and it seems from that and other market data that the growth for organic is 2 x that of conventional! Huge demand from Scandinavian countries, Japan and a lot of European markets too. We have also noticed growth locally as more consumers are delving into how things are grown and made and asking more questions of producers. Education is hugely important in this growth and that is what Organic wine week is all about.